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Atkins Diet Phenomenon May Force Changes in Food Industry - 2003-11-29

Six out of ten Americans are overweight. That's 120 million people, and doctors say the country could soon experience an epidemic of heart disease and diabetes if something doesn't change. Of course, many Americans are doing something about the problem, by dieting. At least 14 million of them have embraced the so-called "Atkins Diet," while another 36 million have adopted slightly less rigorous versions of this high-protein, high-fat, and low-carbohydrate regimen. The Atkins Diet craze is having an impact on the food industry in America, to the delight of some, and the dismay of others.

Lisa Herman says she has tried everything to lose weight. But it wasn't until last March, when she consulted a doctor about the Atkins' Diet, that she began to make progress toward her goal of losing about 45 kilograms. The Atkins' Diet has been criticized by the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association, groups that are concerned about the long-term impact a high-protein, high-fat diet can have on a person's kidneys and heart. But Lisa Heman says being fat is also bad for your health, and so far, she's lost nearly 30 kilograms on the Atkins' Diet.

"I think that I've made up my mind that I have a weight problem, just like some people have maybe a smoking addiction, or an alcohol problem, and you have to stay away from things," she said. "I have to stay away from sugar and things that my body doesn't have the metabolism to work with. "

Eliminating sugar from your diet isn't as simple as just cutting out candy or ice cream or soda. There are a lot of foods that may not be loaded with processed sugar, but which break down into sugar once they're metabolized, because they're full of complex carbohydrates. That's why the Atkins' plan requires dieters to eliminate carbohydrates completely until they've started to lose weight, and then bring carbs back into their diets on a very limited basis. Lisa Herman says she's had to eliminate some foods from her diet that are usually considered to be good for you.

"I don't eat bread anymore, or potatoes or rice, and I don't drink orange juice," she said. "They give me some fruits, but they have to be low glycemic fruits, such as berries and melons, and that's like only twice a week."

And if the 50 million other Americans who say they're on some version of the Atkins' Diet are just as rigorous about it as Lisa Herman is, that could spell trouble for the bread, potato, rice and fruit industries. The Bread Leadership Council recently conducted a survey that suggests 40 percent of Americans may be eating less bread than they used to. The organization recently hosted a conference to formulate a strategy for educating the public about the nutritional value of bread. There's also been a slight dip in orange juice sales in the last two years. All of that has been in the frozen concentrate category; sales of non-concentrated juice have actually gone up. Nevertheless, Eric Boomhower of the Florida Department of Citrus says the popularity of the Atkins' Diet has many orange growers worried.

"Anytime you see a negative in front of your category, I think as a responsible industry, you want to understand what's contributing to that," said Mr. Boomhower. "And one of the questions that's come up within our industry as we analyze this is 'Is it possible that these low-carb diet trends might be having an impact on consumption of orange juice?' in light of the fact that these diets are actually telling people to avoid entire categories of food, including the fruit category."

But if bakers and orange growers have been suffering because of Atkins', it must also be said that the diet's popularity has presented a whole new marketing opportunity for restaurants and entrepreneurs. "Ruby Tuesday's," a popular restaurant chain with outlets in 37 states and the District of Columbia, recently launched a special low-carb line of entrees for people on the Atkins' Diet. It has also placed so-called "smart eating guides" on all its tables, so diners can read about the carbohydrate content of the restaurant's foods. A dozen or so websites have sprung up in the last few years, where dieters can go to order low-carb pasta, muffins, and bread mixes. Jason Butcher is president of, which sells more than 1,000 different food items, all of them low in carbohydrates. Mr. Butcher says he believes the low-carb phenomenon is forcing the food industry to respond.

"I think you're going to see a lot of really good quality products coming out," he said. "You're going to see a lot of smart developers getting involved in this. I can tell you that in 1997, when we were selling low-carb products, these things did not taste good. They really didn't. Today they taste darned good, and you can actually pass these things off to the kids and they'll eat it, and they can't tell the difference. "

Of course, the price of low-carbohydrate products will probably have to come down a bit before the typical American family can afford to eat any of it on a regular basis. At $6.50, a half-kilogram loaf of low-carbohydrate bread costs nearly three times as much as a loaf of traditional bread.